Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Conversation with Jennifer Williams

I met Jennifer Williams back when I was still an undergrad at Cooper. She had returned from grad school in London and began working at Cooper. I was a total photo geek, hanging out in the color darkrooms, printing like there was no tomorrow. I remember the first time Jen and I printed next to each other. She was printing bits and pieces of a room in London, part of a house she squatted in for some time. That was her part of the Glengall Road series. I was completely taken by her need to document every detail in the space in this piecemeal sort of way. I couldn't even begin to imagine what life in a squatted place was like. She didn't have any borders or even a defined shape, her colors were a bit different in each section of the room, this stuff was so punk to me, and it still is.

Glob, Suffolk St., July 2008 © Jennifer Williams

This summer Jen sent some photos of some new work that she had wheat pasted up around the East Village. All I can say is that I think Jennifer Williams is brilliant.

Spurt, Delancey St., July 2008 © Jennifer Williams

"My collages are a response to the radical physical change within the aging nineteenth century neighborhood of the Lower East Side, my home for the last seventeen years. As they slide between modern color digital images and archaic monotone photographic drawings, their materiality mimics the disparate streetscape facades containing ancient crumbling tenements as well as shiny state-of-the-art condos; their forms explore the anxiety of gentrification."

Fight, 2008 © Jennifer Williams

Nymphoto: Tell us a little about yourself.

Jennifer Williams: I’ve spent the half my life living in major cities, but my roots lie in an aging rural/industrial working class area 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh. Recently I’ve begun to realize how often my upbringing informs my work. My parents built a house next door to my grandparents, who were one of the first families to build a house on the street which previously was a big farm. Behind our house, spanning many hills, was a 250-year-old farm, where I attempted to allay my teenage angst by rambling through corn fields while listening to my walkman. It was and is a beautiful place physically, but mentally it was difficult to watch as the area wasted away. All of the industry came to a halt in the 80’s, and hundreds of families moved away. Whole towns were left nearly empty. Today Pittsburgh has reinvented itself and now is a much more economically and culturally rich place for my nieces and nephews, which is just great.

Knowing there was a bigger world out there, in 1990 I moved to New York to attend The Cooper Union, where I studied all kinds of fine art disciplines. Soon after my arrival, I moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which a t the time was a bombed out drug infested rather intimidating mess. I guess to some degree I felt at home in the decay, and “home” has been the same apartment since 1991. The neighborhood and my building both have been inspirations for me art-wise.

During college I went on exchange to London for a semester, my passion for British music and as well as some romantic notion of a trace of Welsh heritage taking me there. In the summer of ’94 my whole band moved there and toured, and eventually in the late 90’s I went back for grad school at Goldsmiths College. I love London, even though it can be terribly depressing weather wise. I’d live there if it weren’t so bloody expensive.

Untitled (Float), 2008 © Jennifer Williams

NP: How did you discover photography?

JW: When I was in elementary school, my mom began taking classes at the local community college in order to get an accounting degree. One of her electives was photography and she borrowed a camera from a neighbor. For her assignments she captured moments around the house/yard/neighborhood: pictures of the cat, quirky trees, me on my bicycle, etc. I was fascinated by the B&W prints she brought home; they transformed my everyday world. Around junior year of high school I took summer art classes in Pittsburgh and had the opportunity to take a 2-week photography course. My parents bought me a 35mm camera which had a digital light meter, and I’ve been taking pictures ever since.

NP: Where do you find inspration?

JW: I’ve always thought of myself as an artist who uses photography to make art, and I draw from sources like film, sculpture, drawing, and music. The everyday provides much inspiration, piles lying around the house or in the street, as well as architecture, or perhaps more specifically architectural ideas. I made my living doing carpentry before I fell into teaching photography, so structure is very important. I like working with my hands and with found materials. I’m fascinated by complex city spaces and buildings altered in weird ways. There is a reoccurring dream I have where my apartment building has extra floors, lots of staircases that go nowhere, extra rooms, sometimes even an elevator (though its usually broken). Also, Hilla and Bernd Becher's work, especially in person, is utterly inspiring. As straightforward as their work may seem, their compositions are mesmerizing, you can feel the precise calculation that has gone on behind the camera before each shot. I know I don’t have that kind of patience, and I respect it greatly.

Untitled (Dangle), 2007 © Jennifer Williams

NP: How did this project come about?

JW: In 2003 I began a project documenting the physical changes happening on the Lower East Side/East Village of Manhattan, focusing on the new architectural additions being built on top of tenements. Often I’d walk around at 7 or 8 AM to catch the light as the sun was rising. This was before the garbage trucks had picked up the trash, and as I was walking I started noticing haphazard yet sculpturally interesting piles along the way. Soon those became my focus, rather than the growth of the LES (which has clearly become less of a moment and more of a movement), and felt the need to work with them as raw materials. I’ve always been the kind of person who builds things out of scraps left behind, rather than starting off with, say, a pristine sheet of plywood or clean sheet of paper. Its something I learned from my grandparents, a sort of “make do with what you have” mentality, nowadays its called “recycling”. I’ve also never been satisfied with the rectangular shape of photographs. They frustrate me. Therefore, I believe the origins of this project lie in a desire recycle and build, as well as a sort of Rauschenberg-ish sense of exploiting the rectangular frame.

Gravitate, Clinton St., July 2008 © Jennifer Williams

Gravitate (detail), Clinton St., July 2008 © Jennifer Williams

Gravitate (detail), Clinton St., July 2008 © Jennifer Williams

NP: What's next?

JW: I’m in the “Fourth Annual Alternative Processes” show at Soho Photo coming up in November . The juror Dan Estabrook choose my work for the grand jurors prize, which is pretty exciting. I’ve also been trying to get my work out there in different ways. Now that my collages have made the step out into the real world via wheat-pasting, I’d like to make more site-specific compositions, both outdoors and indoors. The work should ‘collaborate” with construction barricade panels in which bits have been cut out and replaced, or that are hobbled together at strange angles, etc. It also will move indoors in order to interact with everyday objects in personal spaces. Cyanotype-wise, I want to make a flowing “collage”, perhaps 10 feet long. I’ve also been thinking about incorporating drawing into my work, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. Oh and possibly a project based on found furniture on Craiglist. So many ideas, so little time……

Boxes, 2008 © Jennifer Williams

Leaning, 2008 © Jennifer Williams

The “Fourth Annual Alternative Processes” show at Soho Photo opens tonight. For lots more of Jen's work go to her site, and follow her adventures and musings on her blog, Beatrice the Cat.

Thanks Jen!


nina corvallo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nina corvallo said...

I really like the work and love that you wheat-pasted works around the L.E.S.!